Woodsmoke. Embers. Whisky. Cigar. Good jazz playing, on a really nice system – Class A Marantz amp, Arcam CD player, B&W speakers, fat cables. Don’t get me started.
But the sound is warm, detailed, alive – every lick of the snares, grunt of the sax, deep and present, three-dimensional. Not loud, just there. As here as I am.
You stare into the fire – the oldest mystery – and see yourself there, in its flickering dance, dissolving. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
What do you do, when your wife is in Chicago, far away in lunatic Trumpistan, visiting her kissing cuz and her kissing cuz’s drily entertaining husband, and you are on your own, on your darkened porch in Johannesburg, staring into the fire, watching African TV, in your Danish fire-pit?
You wax philosophical, sentimental – remember past exploits, vanities, disappointments, and then you think (topping up your whisky, reaching for the chocolate) – remember that poem I published (one of maybe seven or eight, max – ok, going easy on myself, maybe a dozen, that I managed to get published in my whole life) – shouldn’t you dig it out of that box of old magazines, and give it up to the universe?
So here is a poem I wrote, I poem I had published, back in the day, when I still had words and I still had bollocks: my contribution to the (large and over/underwhelming) world of unfamous poems.
The magazine, incidentally, was Sesame, No. 12, Spring ’89, just before the Wall fell and the floodgates opened – the opening page of the magazine (it is not exactly a foreword, or introduction – it’s hard to know what it is, and there is no name attached, though as I recall, Sesame at this time was edited by Lionel Abrahams, a minor but genuine and loveable literary lion of the Johannesburg scene, quite a few of whose evening poetical workshops or working seances I attended at that time) – and it was supported, generously, by the Anglo-American Chairman’s Fund, to the tune of R1800 per annum, about $180 Canadian in today’s money, with a three-year grant, a fact which Lionel loyally and necessarily reported.
The magazine sold for R3. I never got a penny. Just my name in lights.
Dream – Bloubergstrand
In my dream your head
the colour of bleached oak sails
vulnerable and proud on the current
in the langorous curve of my arm:
eager trader trim voyager
and my shipshape love!
Oh, there is more to it, I confess;
for example in old paintings of the Cape
we see East-Indiamen squall-flattened
driven towards the dunes of Bloubergstrand;
the wrack of vessels smashed up in the bay
litters the foreground. But in these
dreams you sail free; sunlit and upwind,
bucking the violent tide.
In these dreams. There are others.
My dear, if you stand on the blown dunes
at Blouberg, if you stare across the violent
beautiful bay, half-closing your eyes
against the Sunday-trippers, the unleashed
dogs, can you imagine the bared architecture
of the San gatherers, plunderers in turn
of plundered cargoes, laid like the bones
of antique ships beneath the sand: do you see
the San-girl’s finger-bone welded to the buckle
of the long-drowned sailor’s belt?
In these dreams I am afraid
for us; and I know that you too
are fearful. If my arm
is a sea then like any sea
it deals destruction and tranquillity
indifferently. No anchor holds
on the high crossroads of the bay.
And any sea, being sea, may smash,
beloved, much loved and valiant craft.
That, my dear, is one reading, true
when it is true, but false
as all human truths are.
My arm is a tranquil bay
where once you lay
at rest, rising, falling
on the tide of your breath, turned by
the limpid current of my veins.
Storms did not deter us,
nor will again. It is your
finger in my belt-buckle, indissoluble.
I was going through a box of old diaries and papers last night (there are things in there that will go with me to my grave!) and came across a few copies of New Coin, Sesame, Staffrider – small South African literary magazines from the 80s and 90s. I knew there were a few old poems of mine in there somewhere, one that I remembered in outline, and others I had more or less forgotten about (though I doubt you ever forget these things, these words you have struggled over, completely).
Here are three that I published in Staffrider, in 1989 and 1990. Those were different times, back then.
The neck is the place the yoke rests
heavily; after all it was made by god
or whoever to suffer
submissive the pull
of the plough
something like that
which is a way of saying
finding the escape route of the poem
the bars of the police state
are erected in the muscles of the neck
On the Wire
A dislocation: this
lapse in our voices
immobility of branch of leaf
the locked grip of the shrike
on the telephone wire:
life in its full sudden flood.
Observe how telephone wires
link cortex to cortex: wars
torture detention killings
the intolerable suffering
and our silences, syllables of love.
Consider. It is our silences
that leap soft-tongued
into the ear; that lavish
gestures of tenderness, hope
the strong warm wine of the flesh.
But this nausea rage
the daily news makes speech brutal:
the swift bloody thrust of the shrike
off the wire.
This is Not the Time
This is not the time
for leading the Lippizaner horse
of diction clip-clop-clopping
over the coarse sawdust: asses waggling
in the acid brilliance of the
this is the time for straight talking.
The dead are hauled behind fences while
teargas rolls off the steel flanks of behemoths
in our townships. The regular procession
paces itself: the mounted military grinds
blindly past watchers
who are mostly hidden
who are bent over their dead
who call for guns.
Poets who eye
the grass thick as butter in the paddock
horses nuzzling moving easily
in the cool of the morning
who know love’s fecund ellipses:
this is not the time.